Thursday, July 2, 2009

A new politics of the common good - Reith Lectures 2009

BBC's Reith Lectures 2009 have come to an end with the last lecture and it has been a wonderful ride. Except for the second lecture, that had wee too many examples to support the point, it was pretty persistently an outstanding series. The returning point, to be rounded off in the last lecture (transcript), was that we have been giving too much freedom to the market, resulting in a situation where real policies and real debates are no longer part of the public discourse, but rather left to be decided by market forces. Sandel's plea to let fundamental issues to be decided politically and publicly is therefore a plea for firm democracy and involved citizenship.

He even calls it a new citizenship, though I think it has always been there and needs, as he rightfully points out, be reinforced. To this point, in the last lecture, he looks at policy making itself and shows how the reduction of decision making to cost-benefit analyses, leads to absurd consequences. Some issues have value beyond the monetary and therefore, making a real decision demands of policy makers and the public debate to go beyond cost benefit considerations. He gives a couple of examples, that triggered my own example: noone has suggested we should kill off all citizens beyond the age of 75, even though it almost surely means a huge benefit in cut costs of health and welfare spendings. It is just immoral as everybody knows.

The real problem is to accept that this means we must be ready and be able to hold political and public debate over real issues, over values, over morality. We have developed a sense that values and morality are totally subjective, or part of beliefs and therefore are not open for debate. But in reality we have simple been evading real issues by allowing market forces to decide or rely on cost benefit analyses. To reverse that culture and bring values back into the realm of debatable issues, require a new citizenship and Sandel goes into describing this citizenship. I feel that he does a very good job, but am nagged by the thought we have maybe lost the language and logic to talk about these. As I see it, Sandel makes a point against the consequentialism, the utilitarialism, that have come to dominate our thinking and have monopolized public debate. We need to steer away from that logic and I hope we can.

More Reith:
The bioethics concern,
Morality in Politics,
Morality and the Market,
Michael Sandel - Philosophy Bites.
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